Symbols of Status

China is the only East Asian country with a fully developed range of furniture, as it is the only country to have left the mat at an early date to sit raised off the ground.

Folding stools and chairs are thought to have travelled to China with the Buddhist faith, overland from India.
Wall paintings dating from the Western Wei [535-557] on the cave walls of Dunhuang depict armchairs, and in slightly later paintings high stools appear. Althougth at this time, sitting on the mat was the most usual way of life, high furniture was certainly introduced to those of status at this time.

It is clear from surviving paintings and sculptures that at the Tang [618-906] sitting on raised chairs with legs pendant had become common, for those of high rank, and all other furniture forms such as tables had evolved and adapted in scale and proportion to be used in conjunction with chairs.

Altfield are pleased to have been able to put together a fine collection of Chairs for this exhibition, which will include around 20 different styles of chairs dating from the 18th to 19th century, from Shanxi, Jiangsu, Shandong, and Hebei province's. Many of the finest early pieces retain their original lacquer finishes, while examples made of walnut [hetao mu], peachwood [tao mu], and elmwood [yu mu] are also included.

In Chinese society, seating arrangements were subject to a whole hierarchy of rules. The use of a chair with arms, rather than a simple sidechair, was a prerogative of rank; while stools and barrel seats were still lower in the scale. Unlike the West, China never developed upholstered seating, although the use of soft cane woven seats did evolve to allow a degree of comfort for some seat surfaces.

For people of rank highly decorative loose textiles and furs were often thrown over chairs, and on occasion cushions, and rugs were also used to soften the hard seats. As a result of the lack of upholstery, chairs in China have very pronounced sculptural lines. They have evolved to exhibit forms which range from restrained and minimalist, to highly ornate and elaborately decorated, the basic sturcture having been worked out during the Tang dynasty and undergoing continuous refinement over the many centuries since.

Pieces of particular interest in the collection on exhibition include a number of 19th century folding one, and three person x-leg chairs, with finely carved detail; these belongs to the early traditional furniture styles with strong connections to Tang prototypes. For those clients who prefer the simplicity of traditional classical styles developed during the Ming there are several pairs of refined horseshoe, scholar's-capped, and low square-backed chairs that are exceptional.

Illustrated overleaf: 18th c. square-backed armchair, 19th c. horseshoe-backed armchair, 19th c.yoke-backed armchair.